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When he pitched for San Diego State, the media hyped Stephen Strasburg as a potential superstar, largely on the strength of his awe-inspiring triple-digit fastball as a starter. He was drafted a year before Aroldis Chapman came to the United States and started making triple-digit fastballs seem routine. His major-league debut in 2010 was must-watch television, much in the same way that Noah Syndergaard demands national attention when he takes the bump for the Mets.

It’s not that Strasburg’s triple-digit fastball as a starting pitcher was unprecedented. Nolan Ryan purportedly eclipsed the 100-mph mark with regularity. Kerry Wood did so with the Cubs. Randy Johnson and Josh Beckett lit up radar guns so often that it no longer seemed special. Justin Verlander was bumping a-hundo every fifth day right around the time Strasburg made his big-league debut. So, really, it wasn’t so much that the Nationals’ right-hander was throwing 100 mph as a starter. It was the fact that 100 mph as a starter historically meant he was going to be very good as a starting pitcher in the majors.

But, really, it was never his fastball that made Stephen Strasburg special on the mound. It was his 90-mph changeup that missed bats and gave opposing hitters fits. As his former catcher said in 2013:

“With Stras’s change-up, you never what it’s going to do,” Suzuki said. “Sometimes it’ll drop. Sometimes it’ll tail. Sometimes it stays straight. Sometimes it’ll cut. It’s kind of like a 90-mph split. That’s what makes it so tough as a hitter – they don’t know if it’s going to sink or cut or just stay straight.”

It’s a pitch that has inspired dozens of high-profile gifs across the baseball blogosphere. Simply Google “Stephen Strasburg changeup” and you’ll see that two of the three top results are GIFs of the right-hander unleashing un cambio on an unsuspecting opponent.

His changeup fundamentally defines what he is as a pitcher at this point in his career, even if he’s only throwing it 17 percent of the time. Strasburg’s changeup has been the most effective changeup in Major League Baseball this year (min. 25 changeups):

Player

Team

BA vs Changeup

Stephen Strasburg

Nationals

.028

Danny Salazar

Indians

.050

Brandon Finnegan

Reds

.077

Marco Estrada

Blue Jays

.119

Carlos Martinez

Cardinals

.129

Opposing hitters have gotten one base hit against Strasburg’s changeup in 2016—and even that was nothing but a measly infield single by Eduardo Nunez of the Twins. The pitch is why the right-hander has had reverse platoon splits in recent years.

Year

BA v L

OBP v L

SLG v L

BA v R

OBP v R

SLG v R

2016

.155

.221

.155

.272

.305

.392

2015

.199

.264

.308

.268

.293

.444

2014

.231

.278

.375

.250

.293

.394

2013

.218

.306

.322

.194

.258

.294

This reverse platoon split is why Strasburg has begun experimenting with a slider this year, throwing it 24 percent of the time against righties and rarely throwing it at all against lefties. His changeup remains his put-away pitch against everyone; however, he’s throwing his slider 23 percent of the time on the first pitch against righties, while he hasn’t thrown a single changeup all year in that situation.

It hasn’t necessarily been an effective new pitch for the 27-year-old. Opposing teams have a .318 batting average against his slider this year. They only have a single extra-base hit on a slider, which has effectively limited the damage, but it’s far from a game-changing pitch at the moment. Strasburg is able to keep the pitch on the ground almost two-thirds of the time, too, helping him mitigate the fact that it’s currently not a plus offering.

Throwing fewer fastballs, though, has helped him increase his ground-ball percentage to 49.5 percent, which is above his career norms by over three percent. As he’s switched out fastballs (33.87 percent ground-ball rate) for sliders (63.16 percent ground-ball rate), he’s watched his home-run rate fall to a career-low—unsustainable, sure, but backed with more grounders than in previous years.

In that way, Strasburg is much like the pitcher he was a year ago, the one that posted a 3.46 ERA and a 2.81 FIP. His strikeout rate and walk rates are almost identical. Despite that, his ERA has tumbled to 2.36 and his FIP has fallen to 1.79, both due to his miniscule 0.21 HR/9. And if we consider that his increased ground-ball rate due to his new slider is for real, it seems to me that he’d be much closer to his FIP than he was a year ago.

If he can find a pitch to complement his changeup to right-handers, though, Stephen Strasburg could be otherworldly. He’s devastating against lefties at the moment. He seems to believe this slider can be a difference maker down the line. If that’s true—whether that’s this year or a couple of years down the road—the right-hander should firmly be in the mix for the NL Cy Young Award and one of the top-five starters in all of fantasy baseball.

BUYER’S GUIDE: BUY

I like guys like Strasburg, guys with established dominance in areas that starters struggle—such as retiring opposite-handed hitters—and are good enough in those other areas in which they’re supposed to excel. There’s such a limited downside to those types of pitchers, as seen by Strasburg’s career 3.06 ERA and 2.78 FIP. He’s a durability risk, for sure, but the upside is tremendous. He already has the difficult part down. If only he can tweak something in his repertoire to handcuff same-handed hitters… look out.

Thank you for reading

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brianhuey
5/09
Looking at the BA vs Changeup table, I wonder if having such a low BA vs a certain pitch could actually indicate poor pitch selection. For instance, Strasburg throws the changeup 17% of the time where batters hit .028. If he threw it 23% of the time, would the BA against go up, and if so, by how much? It seems like even if they hit .100 against 5% more changeups, that would be a gain if he threw 5% less sliders that batters were hitting .318 against.
davejsch
5/16
Thanks for another rational article. I was surprised that the end result for Strasburg was a "Buy" simply because of the incredible resurgent hype on him because of his hot start. Any chance on a Matt Harvey analysis? His perceived value, current performance, and future outlook are all up in the air right now for both redraft leagues and dynasty leagues.